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social construction

  The idea that the social context of inquiry, rather than the world which is investigated, determines — constructs — knowledge. Knowledge, therefore, is always relative to its social setting (there are no absolutes), and the outcome of an active process of fabrication rather than the discovery of a reality pre-existent and fully formed. As a result, social constructionism is both relativist and anti-realist.

While intellectual antecedents of social constructionism can be found as far back as Plato, who recognized a link between a citizen\'s knowledge and their place in society, it was Karl Marx (1818-83) who established an intellectual agenda with his claim about the powerful role of social interests in shaping dominant beliefs (ideology). As Marx famously put it: \'It is not the consciousness of men [sic] that determines their social being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.\'

During the twentieth century, social constructionism emerged most systematically in studies around the sociology of knowledge. In particular, the American sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, in their 1966 book The social construction of reality, were the first to make critical use of the term: they wrote that (1966, p. 3) \'insofar as all human “knowledge” is developed, transmitted and maintained in social situations … the sociology of knowledge is concerned with the analysis of the social construction of reality\'. Using the example of religion, Berger and Luckmann argued that social knowledge becomes real and takes on causative powers when people start believing it, and allow it to enter into their everyday life routines (cf. taken-for-granted world). Furthermore, socially derived concepts are believed in part because of powerful reinforcing institutions, in this case the church (which is itself socially constructed).

Making the social constructionist argument for religion or other social \'facts\' such as gender, race or even place is now common, but making the same argument for the facts of nature such as rocks and water, or more exotically, black holes and quarks, meets greater resistance. nature appears fixed and constant, to be permanently \'out there\', and therefore not dependent upon the social beliefs of a given time and place. Since the early 1970s, however, sociologists of scientific knowledge have argued that even nature is socially constructed by scientists (see actor-network theory; local knowledge; science, geography and). In brief, the argument is that the activities of scientists are no different from those of anyone else. Their practices are thoroughly social, and as a consequence so is the knowledge that they produce, even about black holes and quarks. This is not to say that socially constructed scientific knowledge is wrong, or irrelevant. What is wrong, though, is to think that scientists have some special method that allows them to escape their social setting. Note that in making this claim sociologists of scientific knowledge are not saying that the material world is a social construction, that it is all in our heads. That view leads only to a paralysing solipsism. Rather, it is the set of scientific terms in which nature is expressed that is socially constructed, not brute reality itself. But because brute reality cannot express itself in its own terms, we have only the representations of the scientists and the social world which they inhabit.

In human geography Berger and Luckmann\'s work on social constructionism was picked up and elaborated during the 1970s and 1980s by social geographers prosecuting symbolic interactionism, the view that meaning is constituted by and through social interaction. Special attention was paid to the role of everyday life routines, and which also formed a component of time-geography. The influence of the sociologists of scientific knowledge came later, and is also partly associated with the movement in human geography towards postmodernism and post-structuralism. Social constructionism is now found in studies around nature (Demeritt, 1994); gender (Rose, 1993); race (Jackson, 1987); and the economy (Gibson-Graham, 1996). (TJB)

References Berger, P.L. and Luckmann, T. 1966: The social construction of reality: a treatise in the sociology of knowledge. New York: Doubleday. Demeritt, D. 1994: Ecology, objectivity and critique in writings on nature and human societies. Journal of Historical Geography 20: 22-37. Gibson-Graham, J.K. 1996: The end of capitalism (as we knew it). A feminist critique of political economy. Oxford: Blackwell. Jackson, P., ed., 1987: Race and racism: essays in social geography. London: Unwin. Rose, G. 1993: Feminism and geography: the limits of geographical knowledge. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Further Reading Sismondo, S. 1993: Some social constructions. Social Science Studies 23: 515-53.



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